What happened when a billionaire pizza mogul tried to build an elite Catholic law school.
Shortly after their seminal meeting with Monaghan, Safranek and the others negotiated buyouts from the University of Detroit Mercy, packed up their belongings, and moved to Ann Arbor. For most, this move came with some sacrifices. Safranek gave up tenure and a seat on the city council, and sold the home he had just bought for his wife and seven children, a brick abode with a vegetable garden near Lake Sinclair. But they were too wrapped up in their new venture to have regrets.
The professors set up shop in a bank of cubicles at Domino’s Farms, which housed, among other things, the headquarters of Domino’s Pizza. From there, they began putting together the curriculum and recruiting professors. Dobranski eventually drew up a list of thirty-six luminaries of Catholic legal education (he called them his “dream team”) and began contacting them with a personal invitation to join the faculty. Before long, inquiries from prospective students were pouring in. In the fall of 2000, when Ave Maria School of Law opened the doors to its new campus—an 85,000-square-foot Frank Lloyd Wright–style building in northeast Ann Arbor—it had seventy-five students, almost double the initial projections. Their bona fides, namely LSAT scores, were on par with students at many top-tier law schools. Suddenly, Monaghan—a college dropout who had made his fortune delivering pizzas to dorm rooms—was in the inner circle of what was shaping up to be an elite academic club.
From the beginning, Monaghan insisted he wouldn’t meddle in the law school’s daily operations. As he put it in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, “When I owned the Detroit Tigers, I didn’t climb into the dugout and tell Sparky how to set his lineup.” But behind the scenes, he was quietly amassing control. Monaghan appointed himself chairman of the board. According to deposition testimony that Monaghan and his deputies later gave, Dean Dobranski was also given an employment contract with Monaghan’s private foundation rather than with Ave Maria law school. This meant the dean answered directly to Monaghan and not the board of governors, which was supposed to be in charge. Dobranski was also obligated to send the former pizza mogul daily writeups of his activities, to which Monaghan would reply with detailed instructions. What’s more, money for both the law school and the colleges was doled out in dribs and drabs, which allowed Monaghan to keep a tight rein on their operations. (St. Mary’s administrators, for instance, recall pleading with Monaghan’s foundation for $75 to pay the referees at a baseball game.) None of this really mattered as long as he and the faculty were driving toward the same vision. It was only when Monaghan hit on his next grand scheme that things began to unravel.
By early 2002, Monaghan had three promising schools—Ave Maria College, St. Mary’s, and Ave Maria School of Law—but they were scattered across Michigan. In the hopes of bringing them together on a single campus, he submitted plans to build a new Ave Maria University at Domino’s Farms. The proposal might have sailed through unnoticed if it weren’t for one detail: a 250-foot crucifix. That’s taller than the old General Motors building and almost as tall as the Statue of Liberty. The idea touched off a firestorm in Ann Arbor Township, a wealthy rural community with roughly 5,000 residents near the city of Ann Arbor. Many locals still nursed resentments over Monaghan’s previous architectural ventures; years earlier he had tried to build the “Leaning Tower of Pizza,” a thirty-five-story copper-and-bronze-clad tower with a slight eastward slant. A few also grumbled that the onetime pizza baron—who had already opened two convents, a pair of Catholic radio stations, and a Catholic newspaper in the area—was trying to turn the township into a theocracy.
In the end, the local planning commission denied his petition to build the university, and Monaghan was forced to look further afield. He eventually settled on a scraggly stretch of tomato fields bordering southwest Florida’s Corkscrew Swamp. The site was twenty miles inland of Naples, which has a high concentration of Catholics and conservatives, and Monaghan believed they would be friendlier to his vision. And, as luck would have it, Barron Collier Companies, a powerful local landowner, offered to donate some 750 acres on which to build the university. In return, Monaghan agreed to work with Barron Collier to build a planned community around the school, with the profit split down the middle.
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